The Gunnery Celebrates 169th Commencement

Graduates Encouraged to “Dream Big and Let Nothing Hold You Back”

The Gunnery graduated 84 students, representing 13 states and nine countries, in the Class of 2019 at its 169th Commencement Exercises, held Sunday, May 26, 2019. The ceremony, held under the tent at Edward Wersebe Memorial Field, was notable for its abundant sunshine, joy, gratitude and a true sense of community inspired by the legacy and spirit of school founder, abolitionist, individualist and outdoorsman Frederick Gunn.
The procession, led by bagpipers from the Litchfield Hills Pipe Band, and newly elected Prefects Juliette Gaggini ’20 and Nathaniel Ince ’20, who carried the American flag and the school flag, respectively, stepped off from Bourne Courtyard as students from the freshmen, sophomore and junior classes, followed by the faculty and graduates, made their way across campus.

Madeleine Aitken ’19 of Montclair, New Jersey, delivered the Head Prefect Address, reflecting on an essay recommended by her English teacher, Melissa Schomers. Titled “The Opposite of Loneliness,” it was written by Marina Keegan, who died tragically in a car crash at age 22, just five days after her 2012 graduation from Yale University. In her essay, Keegan defined the idea of the opposite of loneliness this way: “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, and abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team,” Aitken said, noting that when she read Keegan’s essay, “I was struck with a feeling of intense understanding, because I also found the opposite of loneliness somewhere. I found it here.”

“I feel impossibly lucky to have spent three years in a place that has made me feel the opposite of loneliness every single day, in ways big and small. I’ve felt it in traditions, in classes, in co-curriculars, in experiences, in singular moments, in what have and will become memories,” Aitken said. In addition to events such as the All-school Walk, holiday concerts, class trips, dorm dinners and community weekends, Aitken recalled simple moments spent with her best friends “with whom I’ve had my best adventures and made my favorite memories; from whom I’ve learned lessons that have helped me grow as a friend and as a person.”

“These small moments are the ones in which I feel the opposite of loneliness most. The ones where nothing seems important except each other, where no one’s rushing off to do anything, where everyone feels truly happy and comfortable and safe and content,” she said.

“My greatest hope for us is that when we walk out of this tent today with our diplomas in hand, as we scatter across the globe to attend different colleges and then scatter again to live in different cities and work at different jobs with different people, we stay rooted in what we learned at The Gunnery. Not just what we learned in the classrooms, but what we learned about life – what it is and what it should be – and what we learned about ourselves – who we are and who we want to be,” she concluded.

James Rayhill ’20 infused his Head Prefect-Elect Address with humor and sarcasm, sharing some “helpful” advice he received from his four older siblings, which he solicited against his better judgment. Their top recommendations included: “Don’t take yourself too seriously” and “Don’t let the fear of embarrassment prevent you from pursuing your passions.”

“Be yourself, pursue your passions, and if you do this you will find real friends, people with whom you share many interests, people who you will cherish and love and who will cherish and love you as well,” Rayhill advised the graduating class. “Be yourselves and do not worry about others because frankly, you will find that they do not care. And that way you will be your happiest.”

The Commencement Address was given by Wanji Walcott P’19, Vice Chair of The Gunnery Board of Trustees and Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the PayPal Global Legal team. In her remarks, Walcott, who is a graduate of Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, and received her bachelor’s degree and law degree from Howard University, referenced her own time at boarding school. By the time she graduated from Middlesex, she recalled: “My freshman-year self had grown into a capable young adult and each of my experiences prepared me for the road ahead. My friend group expanded, opportunities seemed endless, my interests had evolved and, perhaps most importantly, my confidence – in myself as a student and as a socially responsible citizen – had grown, thanks to the community of faculty, mentors and classmates I was exposed to during my time at school.”

“Remember this as you say your goodbyes today and make a concerted effort to keep in touch,” she said, addressing the graduates. “The meaningful relationships you’ve established here will be foundational for the road ahead of you.”

“There is such value in having been a part of The Gunnery community and what it has taught you about the importance of inclusion and tolerance, mutual respect and meaningful dialogue. Having this experience early and taking these lessons to heart will inform the rest of your life and the role you play in every community that you become part of,” she said. “As people who have now learned and lived in the richness and connectedness of a values-based community, you can be positive leaders of influence, making a difference in, and contributing to, every community you become a part of throughout your life, whether at home, in college, at work or in the places you live. But you must be more than just a beneficiary of the community.”

“The knowledge and opportunity you have been afforded creates some level of obligation wherever you are to share with others what you know about how to build, strengthen and thrive in a community,” Walcott said. “This, after all, is what heals and creates positive change in the world.”

Sitting in the audience at her own high school graduation, Walcott said she had no idea that she would go on to a successful career, become a Gunnery Trustee, or engage in philanthropic efforts driven by her own passion for diversity and inclusion. “I never saw leaders in these types of roles that looked like me, so I just wasn’t sure it was possible. I now realize that anything is possible,” she said, encouraging the graduates to believe that for themselves: “Dream big and let nothing hold you back, not even your own self-doubt, or the doubts others may project on you, or the fact that nobody else like you has previously accomplished what you have in mind; Let that be your driver, not your barrier.”

Following Walcott’s address, Head of School Peter Becker awarded the school’s three top prizes. The Brinsmade Prize is awarded to a student “who best combines unselfish and sympathetic interest in people with a purpose for citizenship and social responsibility.” This year it was presented to William B.C. Alling Graney ’19.

The Head of School’s Prize is awarded to “a member of the graduating class who, by constant excellence and dependability in studies and in extracurricular activities, has contributed outstandingly to the success of the school year.” The prize was awarded to Yuchen “Rain” Ji ’19.

The Gunnery Cup is awarded to “that student who, through character and achievement, shall have contributed most largely to the success of the school year.” It was awarded to Chen “Jean” Fang ’19, who was also named the “Top Scholar” of the Class of 2019.

Additional prizes for academic excellence and other honors were presented the previous evening during the school’s annual Prize Night ceremony.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees, Patrick Dorton ’86, Board Chair, granted the Head of School the authority to confer diplomas to the great Class of 2019. To the class, Becker gave the charge that has echoed on our campus for 40 years, since the headship of Michael Eanes H’90 P’90 GP’20 ’23, and handed diplomas to each graduate as their names were called. In closing, Becker said to the graduates: “We’re proud of you. You have finished well. Go out into the world and make us proud. Go be like Mr. Gunn.”

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Founded in 1850 by abolitionist, educator, and outdoorsman Frederick Gunn, The Gunnery is a coeducational college preparatory boarding and day school for students in grades 9 through 12/post-graduate. Dedicated teacher-mentor-coaches challenge students to reach their full potential in a home-like setting where character and citizenship are valued as much as intellect and achievement. Individualized attention and high expectations help young learners develop not only the skills and confidence they will need in college, but also the moral compass and love of learning that will serve them well in life. The school attracts ambitious, academically curious students who will both shine as unique individuals and thrive as contributing members of a deeply connected community. By the time they graduate, Gunnery students have become well rounded, grounded young adults with a sharpened sense of who they are and who they want to become.